How Intelligence Contributes to Successful Language Learning

Intelligence was considered as a concept devoid of emotion and symposium on intelligence over the years repeatedly concluded that the first hallmark of intelligence is high-level mental ability such as abstract reasoning (Sternberg 1997). While Terman (1921; cited in Sternberg 1997: 339), states that “an individual is intelligent in proportion as he is able to carry on abstract thinking”. Therefore, intelligence conceptualized as abstract thinking was demonstrated to predict academic success.

In relating intelligence to second language learning, Brown (1994: 93) states that in the past it was conceived that “the greatest barrier to second language learning seemed to boil down to a matter of memory”, in the sense that if a student could remember something he or she was exposed to, he or she would be a successful language learner because intelligence was traditionally defined and measured in terms of linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities. Based on this, it is clear that intelligence contributes to successful language learning.

Gardner (1993) emphasizes that language is not grammar specific, but it is influenced by other factors that are intelligence-based. The second phase of Gardner’s model introduces the four individual differences which are believed to be the most influential in second language acquisition. These include the variables of intelligence, language aptitude, motivation and situational anxiety (Giles and Coupland 1991). Closely interrelated with these variables is the next phase of the model, referred to as the setting or context in which learning takes place. Two contexts are identified, namely formal instruction within the classroom and unstructured language acquisition in a natural setting. Depending upon the context, the impact of the individual difference variables alters. For example, in a formal setting intelligence and aptitude play a dominant role in learning, while exerting a weaker influence in an informal setting. The variables of situational anxiety and motivation are thought to influence both settings equally.

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Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory (MIT) (1983, 1999) is an important contribution to cognitive science and constitutes a learner-based philosophy which is “an increasingly popular approach to characterizing the ways in which learners are unique and to developing instruction to respond to this uniqueness”. MIT is a rationalist model that describes nine different intelligences. It has evolved in response to the need to reach a better understanding of how cognitive individual differences can be addressed and developed in the classroom.

Gardner (1999) and his research associates identified the mathematical-logical, the verbal-linguistic, the musical-rhythmic, the bodily-kinaesthetic, the interpersonal, the intrapersonal, the visual-spatial, the naturalist and the existential intelligences. The following criteria have been used in MIT to find an intelligence: it “entails the ability to solve problems”, it involves a “biological proclivity”, it has “an identifiable neurological core operation or set of operations” and it is “susceptible to encoding in a symbol system … which captures and conveys important forms of information” (Gardner 1999: 15-16). These different intelligences reflect a pluralistic panorama of learners’ individual differences; they are understood as personal tools each individual possesses to make sense out of new information and to store it in such a way that it can be easily retrieved when needed for use. The different intelligences are of neutral value; none of them is considered superior to the others. In their basic form, they are present to some extent in everyone, although a person will generally be more talented in some than in others. Each of these frames is autonomous, changeable and trainable (Armstrong, 1999) and they interact to facilitate the solution of daily problems.

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